Heart and Soul turns the corner

Community-building project goes from talk to action

By Jason Starr
The Essex Reporter

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heart-handshakeThe following are the concepts of community that all of Essex can agree on, according to research conducted over the past six months by the grant-funded Heart and Soul of Essex committee: education, community connections, safety, thoughtful growth, local economy and health/recreation.

The committee distilled the concepts from a series of community conversations that involved roughly 350 Essex residents who were chosen deliberately to be geographically and demographically diverse. Heart and Soul is a project funded through the Orton Family Foundation of Middlebury, which has granted $100,000 each to Essex and four other communities in an effort to increase civic engagement and guide the communities to identifying their core values.

Orton’s board of trustees held its quarterly meeting at The Essex Resort and Spa last weekend, and Essex Heart and Soul co-coordinators Liz Subin and Sue McCormack presented the town’s progress on the two-year grant. It’s not because Essex is the closest of the five grant recipients to Orton headquarters — the other recipients are in Maine and the Rocky Mountain states — and Orton representatives are able to provide on-site coaching on the process roughly twice a month, but Orton Director of Communications John Barstow says Essex’s Heart and Soul team stands out for its exemplary approach to the project.

“Essex rocks,” Barstow said. “In comparison to other towns we’ve worked with, they are like gangbusters … They are marvelously self-evaluative and critical, which any foundation like ours likes to see, and they are creative. Who knows where it will all lead. But in terms of progress, the foundation is very pleased.”

The Heart and Soul committee hired Subin and McCormack to co-coordinate the project after applying for and receiving the grant in 2012. Last September, after a summer of designing the program, Heart and Soul held a launch party at the Champlain Valley Exposition. There, 15 concepts of community were identified among the approximately 250 residents who attended. Through a series of 43 community conversations — gatherings of about a dozen residents grouped by neighborhood, age, ethnicity and other social variables — those concepts were narrowed down the six listed above.

“These values rose to the surface across all the conversations,” McCormack said.

In a Feb. 26 project update to the Essex Junction Board of Trustees, Subin described the six concepts as the principals that guide the project into the action phase over the remainder of this year. By the end of the year, organizers expect to unveil written recommendations and action steps that are founded on the six guiding principals and that can inform local decision-making.

Organizers are eager to convert the conversations into actions before the final product is delivered. To that end, and because so many conversation participants expressed the desire for a coffee shop in town, Heart and Soul is launching a coffee cart (“Cart and Soul”) to appear at events and in different locations this spring and summer. The cart will offer free coffee in exchange for time spent on a survey.

The survey will also be available online at heartandsoulofessex.org and at local libraries, Maple Street Park and town and village offices. It is a way for organizers to confirm support for the six value statements and probe for action ideas.

Essex organizations that have been involved with the project — such as the selectboard and village trustees, the planning commissions in Essex and Essex Junction, the school districts, and the recreation departments — plan to meet June 5 to formulate action ideas and ensure that there is no re-inventing of the wheel. That is, it will be a chance for organizations to point out ways in which they are already aligned with the guiding concepts. The summit will also identify gaps that can be filled with new actions.

Then, one year to the day after the launch party, on Sept. 25, Heart and Soul will host another community-wide gathering to prioritize the action ideas and set up organizers to write the final product.

McCormack noted, however, that the Heart and Soul process has already produced benefits in the community in terms of civic engagement. Some participants have increased participation in governing meetings, she said, others have built on acquaintances made during the neighborhood conversations, and at least one sought a position as library trustee.

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What it all means …

 

The Essex Reporter asked Brad Luck — Essex Selectman, Essex Junction Recreation and Parks Director, and Heart and Soul citizens advisory team chairman — to expand on where the Essex Heart and Soul project stands now and what success will look like when project wraps up later this year.

 

Q: What have you’ve thought of the Heart and Soul process so far?

A: Our first year of work has been fascinating. We’ve accomplished a lot, but still have much to do. The Heart and Soul concept is still tough for people to latch on to. It’s such a different beast. We are talking about people having meaningful conversations, sharing stories with their neighbors, and really engaging in thinking about how to make change happen. It’s about a cultural shift to thinking about what is possible, where we want to be in 10 and 20 years, and then connecting the dots to ask the hard questions of what do we need to do now as friends, neighbors, businesses, schools, and government, in order to make it happen.

It is complex and is a slower process, with less clearly defined outcomes than most community projects. People working on other important community initiatives like the farmers’ market or dog park have very defined outcomes they are seeking. Ours is a bit more imprecise, which makes the work of our advisory team interesting and challenging, but also means that it is tough for the community to gain a good understanding of the project. We are hard at work and really excited about year two since this is where we will be asking people to weigh in with their thoughts of how to improve our community and for them to find opportunities to get their hands dirty and get involved in the work.

Q: What has been accomplished?

A: We wrote and submitted a joint application by the village and the town, each agreeing to contribute $12,500, for a grant that promoted examining ways to better jointly plan for the future. That, in and of itself, is impressive! After being selected as a finalist community and having more than 100 people attend our site visit by the Orton Foundation, we were awarded a two-year, $100,000 grant. We wrote by-laws and formed a non-profit. We created a Facebook page and a website — heartandsoulofessex.org. We created a job description for a project coordinator, reviewed 31-applicants, and hired project co-coordinators. We hosted a cultural competency training and expanded our community advisory team to 22 members. We hosted an Essex Trivia contest in The Essex Reporter, constructed a photo booth and brought it to community events, and put up a Little Free Library in front of the town offices. We had 300-plus community members attend a launch party at the Champlain Valley Expo, where we established a broad list of values words for Essex. We trained 30-plus volunteer community facilitators and hosted 45 community conversations whereby 340 community members devoted two hours each towards having a quality discussion about our common values and the future of Essex. These conversations included ones between the trustees and selectboard, the village and town planning commissions, and at least one in each of the nine Front Porch Forum neighborhoods. We hosted a candidate forum for local representative races, sponsored a book talk — “Slow Democracy” — at Phoenix Books, and held a reception for our artist in residence, who will be in our community this fall leading us in a community art initiative in conjunction with the schools, titled Mobilizing our Community. We identified values and values statements and are starting to have the community weigh in on these and provide us with ideas to make Essex better in the future.

Q: What will success mean in the final phases of the project?

A: Community feedback and ideas — The outcomes of this project can only be enhanced by more and more voices from our community members weighing in. We want to know how they feel about the values statements. We want their suggestions of how to make this a better place.

Connecting values and ideas to action — For the next six months, we will be garnering feedback about the values and getting ideas for action ideas. Then we will need to take action! We will need people to step up and help tackle the items that have been identified as ways to enhance Essex.

Institutionalizing community values in all sectors of the community — We will be successful if we can take all of this information and these suggestions and turn them into tools, policies, land use code, local ordinances, and more. The results of this project need to be that our shared values are woven into the fabric of not only our day to day life, but institutionalized in the work of our local businesses, churches, schools, and government through purposeful planning that uses the values as guides for decision-making.